The Emperor’s tattered clothes

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Judging from the decibel level of parent and teacher complaints about what is occurring in St. Paul schools, you’d think the district administration and board members would be scrambling to address the concerns. Not so. Instead, they continue to march to their own tune, oblivious to what’s actually occurring in district classrooms. After all, they believe their new policies are working—it’s the carping stakeholders who can’t see the newly-wrought marvels.

Take the case of the move to mainstream English language learners in the secondary schools, a change that was announced without stakeholder input. Next September, students with a first-to-second grade reading level will be placed in mainstream English classes. In one high school, they will be reading Othello. Under the new co-teaching model, they may or may not have some ELL assistance in that endeavor.

This school year, Htoo Htoo* studies comfortably in his beginning, level two ELL class surrounded by fellow English Learners from around the world. He is Karen, from Burma, via a Thai refugee camp – one of 13,000 diverse English Language Learners in the St. Paul Public Schools, or one-third of the district’s student population. The district has not informed Htoo Htoo, his parents, nor his Karen community that his school world will soon be drastically changing.

Htoo Htoo is a bright, eager, focused 14 year-old making progress in English. His family left Burma to escape persecution and lived in the jungle for several months before moving to a Thai refugee camp. There he helped build his family’s shelter, took care of his siblings and elderly grandmother and prepared meals. He attended school in camp for about two years off-and-on, but then dropped out to work in the fields to help support the family. Two years ago he arrived in the U.S. Adapting to life here has not been easy. Minnesota’s winters, life in a large city, the English language, and life without the extended family left behind have been a challenge.

However, in school Htoo Htoo feels support from his refugee friends and his ELL teacher, who understands his needs. He comprehends the instruction because his classes provide the necessary background knowledge and language and academic skills appropriate to his first or second grade reading level. Next year support will be minimal.

Many are stunned by the change. Placing language learners into mainstream classes is not supported by research nor best teacher practices, does not consider a student’s educational history, and is arguably inequitable for both mainstream and ELL students. Even though many students are not proficient in their native language because of war, and poverty, and thus face high hurdles in English instruction, the district leaders contend they have too long been coddled in ELL classes. The change is a radical departure from past SPPS practice, models in other schools, and what research shows is best ELL pedagogy.

Because the change affects a community lacking English language skills and is being implemented without any consultation, or even notification, many consider it racist.

Although parents and teachers have grown very vocal in their protests since word of the changes has spread, apparently their concerns have gone unheeded. The only viable conclusion is that the SPPS Board and administration are trying to “run out the clock” in the hope that by fall the ruckus will have died down.

Where is the child whose cry of “Foul!” will be heard above the crowd of syncopates surrounding the emperor?

*fictional student

Rosemary Ruffenach is an instructor in the public schools, holds an advanced degree in educational administration and has taught educational policy at Hamline and Metro State Universities.